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Economics B.S. degrees climb

The Bachelor of Science program in the economics department has grown dramatically in recent years, leaving faculty and administrators seeking explanations and scrambling to accommodate the influx of students.

The B.S. in economics has been on the rise since it was first established for the 1996-1997 academic year, but last year's increase was the largest ever. For the Class of 2002, a record 190 students--or 54 percent of economics majors--graduated with a B.S. degree in economics, making it more popular than the Bachelor of Arts degree for the first time in the history of the department.

Economics department faculty and administrators said they were stunned by the dramatic growth of the B.S. program. "At the time we created the B.S., I don't think anybody expected it to get that big," said Thomas Nechyba, associate professor and director of undergraduate studies in economics. "We're all scratching our heads a little as to why it's grown so much."

Dean of Trinity College Robert Thompson offered the hypothesis that increased mathematics requirements in the economics department have encouraged students to pursue the B.S., since they are already well on their way to that degree.

Nechyba noted that there has been a national trend toward more B.S. degrees in economics, which many attribute to the booming economy of the 1990s. Still, he indicated that Duke is well ahead of the curve. "At very few places is [the shift toward B.S. degrees] happening at the rate it is at Duke," he said.

Nechyba said another possibility is that students perceive the B.S. as a more "serious" degree and more useful for the job market.

Many students agreed with this assessment. "The A.B. does not make you very attractive to employers," said sophomore Eli Silverman, who plans to earn a B.S. in economics. "The B.S. seems more compatible to learning business."

Senior Shawn Pope agreed that the B.S. was perceived as more useful for many professions, although he decided to pursue an A.B. degree in economics because he had little interest in mathematics and was double majoring. "B.S. kind of gives you an edge," he said.

Economics Professor Curtis Taylor said the B.S. program has attracted students away from other disciplines. "We have experienced a huge increase in overall enrollment because students that formerly majored in other quantitative disciplines have been attracted to the economics B.S. degree," Taylor said. "The reason for this is, of course, economics. More and more employers are discovering the value of workers with strong analytic and quantitative skills in economics, finance, and statistics."

Thompson said he strongly believes neither degree program is necessarily more useful than the other, and Curriculum 2000 has reinvigorated the University's commitment to a broad and well-balanced education. Still, he recognizes that many students seek professional and technical training at the undergraduate level.

Nechyba agreed. "Duke is trying to be a place that does still have a liberal arts component, but I think on the student side, that students are increasingly more focused on the professional preparation college affords," he said. "In that sense, the B.S. would seem to fit better [with] what students want."

The unchecked growth of the economics department has led to major upheavals over the last three years. Class sizes at the introductory level have expanded considerably, the number of new faculty hires has surged and the department established the EcoTeach center last fall to aid undergraduate instruction.

Nechyba said that until recently, the quality of instruction was compromised by hiring too many unqualified faculty members on a short-term basis. However, he said this problem has been successfully addressed. "We've really come a long way," he said.

Thompson said he hoped interest in economics would level out because the growth has taxed the University's resources. If growth continues at the current rate, the University may consider limiting the number of economics majors.

No matter what the growth rate, Thompson said the University would remain committed to economics. "It's not just enrollment," he said. "Having a strong economics department is always important to Arts and Sciences."


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